A friend of mine recently sent me an interesting article from the Sports Section of the New York Times (“Rested and Ready” by Peter Thamel, Aug. 29, 2010, p.13) about Urban Meyer, the very successful head coach of the University of Florida’s football team, the Gators. He had brought them from obscurity to a winning team in a short period.
Meyer was rushed to the hospital one night with severe chest pain simulating the symptoms of a heart attack. Fortunately, the diagnosis turned out to be esophageal reflux and spasm, a more benign medical problem. After leaving the hospital, he decided to retire from coaching, to the shock of many, but the next day changed his mind and took a leave of absence instead in order to focus on balancing his life and regaining his equilibrium. He took his children on vacations and learned to turn off his BlackBerry and cell phone from time to time so that he “stayed in the precious present.”
He commented that “..when I shut it off, I need to shut it off. When I go to dinner with my daughter, I’m going to have dinner with my daughter. I’m not going to be texting some guy in Phoenix.” This was a man who had previously constantly been on his cell phone or BlackBerry all hours of the day and sometimes night. Now he has also gone back to exercising and eating regularly and delegating responsibilities. He even lectures his athletes on the importance of balance in life. I view this story as an amazing transformation of a driven and competitive man who has decided to live his life more fully. And interestingly enough, the author Peter Thamel comments that “Meyer may have recharged his career by learning how to shut things down.”
Our lives today are so full of distractions that constantly take us away from ourselves. While use of cell phones, BlackBerries, computers, and smart phones has so vastly broadened the amount of information and contact available to us, it has come at a very high price, the loss of our interest and ability to connect with our inner selves and a loss of our appreciation of all the wonder and beauty around us in the world. There is a sense of isolation and loneliness and a lack of fulfillment today, no matter how much cyberspace has offered us. That great sage of popular culture and practitioner of the art of living with gusto, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, comments poignantly on this situation in his song, “Everybody’s on the Phone,” the inspiration for this column’s title.
Some of the lyrics are:
Everybody’s on the phone
So connected and all alone
From the pizza boy to socialite
We all salute the satellite
Won’t you text me with the master plan
You’re loud and clear but I don’t understand
I’m a digital explorer in analog roam
Everybody’s on the phone. (Jimmy Buffett, Peter Mayer, Roger Guth, Will Kimbrough)
I have often dodged people on the street who almost bump into me because they are looking at their BlackBerries instead of where they are walking. I’ve seen distracted drivers on cell phones making moves that endanger pedestrians and other drivers from the lack of attention. I’ve noticed couples in restaurants where one is on a cell phone and the other is checking email and wondered why they are even sitting together. I’ve been annoyed by bright light in a dark theatre from cell phones people are texting on during a live performance, while they don’t even pay attention to what is going on out there on the stage. I’ve marveled at how people can immediately check their messages after a movie is over, not even giving themselves a chance to think about what they just saw. I’ve seen people in the park who don’t even hear the lovely music of the live flute player or the birds singing in the trees because the earphones from their iPod plug up their ears. And finally, I’ve read and heard about subscribers to Facebook who have hundreds of friends and feel that proves they are worthwhile people.
All of this is symptomatic of a much larger problem: our inability and lack of interest in experiencing the moment. We are losing our ability just to be. And if we just can’t “be”, we lose sight of who we really are and what we really want and where we really are going. As David Kundtz, S.Th.D, so eloquently says in his wonderful and beautiful book, Moments in Between, “Any of the moments of your life can become a wonder; any situation you’re in can be affected by transcendent joy.” (p.22) There is great power when you are present to yourself and to the universe around you. You can know yourself better including your thoughts, emotions, reactions, fears, and strengths. And, you can be more connected to the world around you and better understand your place in it. All these benefits can actually relieve anxiety and stress and give you renewed energy and a sense of being refreshed. Many people regard living in the present a very spiritual act because of the awareness it affords us. Even paying attention to the smallest things can be a transformative experience. The author Henry Miller observed, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
It is difficult to pay close attention to anything when one is checking email on the phone or texting while walking on the street or following a path through the woods. In his book, How to Save Your Own Life, Michael Gates Gill urges us to throw off our “electronic chains” and free ourselves. His advice – “Give yourself time to fully enjoy the gift of today.” (p.104) We are losing our capacity to fully enjoy our lives because we have become so addicted to our electronic devices.
Part of our falling into this pattern comes from the focus of our society on “doing” instead of “being.” How often people ask “What do you do?” right after they meet someone, as if what you do defines you. In some ways your job or profession may define you, but it gives no hints as to who you are as a person. Wouldn’t it be nicer to ask someone, “How are you being in the world?” instead? But we are so pressured in our society always to be doing and accomplishing. Success is frequently measured in material terms. Doing nothing, and just being, is often frowned upon. But doing nothing, particularly when you are present to yourself, can be very productive, David Kundtz asks us to consider, “If you were no longer to do what you do, who would you be? By doing nothing the doing part of you drops away and the being part of you gradually comes alive. It has to, because the doing is gone.” (Moments in Between, p.23) Some people feel that doing nothing is like running away from reality. Kundtz replies, “Intentionally doing nothing is indeed the opposite of running and hiding. This is because it brings you face to face with the most important and challenging aspects of human life, those based on your meanings and values.” (p.16) So doing nothing and being present in the moment can get us in touch with our true selves and what we want and need. Being busy all the time and trying to be connected electronically to someone constantly does just the opposite. We get lost and in the end find little satisfaction because we’re neglecting ourselves by paying attention to all the electronic distractions instead. August Rodin, the great French sculptor, said. “The more simple we are, the more complete we become.”
Being distracted and losing our awareness can affect the quality of our lives. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD., has written extensively on this issue in his landmark book on mindfulness meditation, Full Catastrophe Living. He states that mindful awareness, promoted by mindfulness meditation, gives us insight and clarity into the way we live and enables us to change our life so that we can improve our health and the quality of our life. It is a way of looking inward and being more aware of oneself and paying attention to thoughts and feelings. As a result, we can become more aware of our surroundings and other people with whom we come in contact. Rather than listening to a cell phone or iPod, mindfulness, according to Kabat-Zinn, encourages people to listen to their own minds and bodies. It is the best example of “practicing non-doing” by “practicing being.” He stresses that mindfulness meditation, the practice he teaches in his book, is “really about paying attention” (p.21) at a time like ours when most people are not even aware of what’s going on around them in the present moment.
Our minds wander constantly on their own, and the technology now available to us is distracting us even further. As a result, we are not even aware of many moments of our day and what we are experiencing in our lives. In addition, we miss connections to other people and miss opportunities to appreciate the beautiful things in the world and the joy of being alive. As an antidote to this, Kabat-Zinn proposes “the art of conscious living” where mindfulness, cultivated through mindfulness meditation, promotes moment to moment awareness whether the experiences are good or bad. If we immerse ourselves fully in the life we’re living, with its joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures, we can more easily learn from life’s lessons and grow as a result.
In addition, mindful awareness keeps us in touch with our bodies so we can better listen to our bodies’ signals and messages when something is either right or wrong with our health. It is just as easy to lose touch with your body as it is with your environment and the people in your surroundings. The details of the practice of mindfulness meditation are outlined in Full Catastrophe Living. It involves sitting still with no physical distractions; concentration on breathing; letting thoughts go; and paying attention to yourself. It requires diligence, persistence, and constant practice. The potential benefits are many – lowered blood pressure, less anxiety, more awareness of who you are, more appreciation of the details of your environment, better connection to other people, more awareness of your body, and better handling of stress.
One cannot talk about this topic of distraction and awareness without talking about stress. The American Institute of Stress has stated that 75-90% of visits to doctors in the United States were due in part to stress. That’s an impressive figure that emphasizes the importance of minimizing stress in our lives to improve our health. Stress activates our fight or flight response left over from the caveman days, and as a result of the release of epinephrine from the adrenal glands, blood pressure rises, heart rates increases, muscles tense, and sweat glands secret. Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D. and Marc Cohen, M.A. have pointed out in their book, Vitality and Wellness, that prolonged exposure to stress results in physiological and psychological damage. Studies have shown that stress can weaken the immune system, cause hypertension and depression, make the possibility of a heart attack, stroke, or cancer more likely and result in flareups of autoimmune diseases (p.40) They also point out that while stress is unavoidable in life, our reaction to it and how we deal with it are extremely important. Awareness of the present moment, of ourselves and our feelings, of our environment, achieved through mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, can help deal with stress and reduce it. Phones, BlackBerries, and other devices that take us away from awareness of the present moment work against our management of stress by distracting us from the stressors and our own feelings and reactions to stress. It’s the same principle, mentioned earlier, of taking us away from ourselves and what we need. As a result, people may not be aware of the stresses they have in their lives until it begins to affect their physical and emotional health. When you are not even aware of stress in your life and just accept it as a normal part of your daily routine, you can’t take steps to eliminate or reduce it. The distractions, electronic and otherwise, that we have in our lives may keep us from dialoguing with ourselves. That dialogue is a necessary process that can lead to new awareness and change.
In addition, the phones and BlackBerries can themselves also contribute to our stress. People who are constantly over-stimulated can actually bring more stress upon themselves. The constant need to keep up with calls, check messages, and stay in frequent touch with others causes stress in itself, in addition to the everyday stresses that are part of being human. As Rechtschaffen and Cohen comment, “You may be doing a great job of knowing who you are in relation to other people, but do you know who you are in relation to yourself?” (p.51) Cell phones and email do keep us in touch with everyone but ourselves. We do live in a society that rewards working hard, being concerned about the opinion of others, self-sacrifice, and multitasking, but the damage lies in not being aware of who we are and what our needs are, and that leads to stress. It is important to have balance in your life where you can enjoy your own company and know yourself and what is important to you.
Some of the health effects of distraction and lack of awareness have already been mentioned. Being out of touch with your body can lead to missed opportunities to notice when things aren’t physically right. Not having the inner calm that mindfulness can engender and overreacting to stresses and different life situations can create a physical environment where hypertension, ulcers and bowel diseases, heart disease, back pain, and other health problems are more likely to occur. There can also be a disconnectedness with other people, even though you are constantly electronically connected. As Jimmy Buffett said in his song, “So connected and all alone.” There is something lost when texting, because people aren’t face to face where emotions can be expressed and more human contact is possible. This can lead to psychological alienation. There are also the losses that occur when not connected to our environment and what is going on around us. We miss the things that can make living joyful. Not having the time or ability to have a sense of wonder or joy can definitely be deleterious to one’s health. We all need to be part of something.
And finally, there is the issue of self-esteem. The authors of Vitality and Wellness ask, “Why is it so difficult to be in the present moment? Could it be related to low self-esteem?” (p.54) They go on to say that self awareness, which can be achieved through mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, increases self-esteem by making you aware of your strengths, abilities, and attributes, and also the parts of you that can be changed and improved. Having hundreds, and even thousands, of friends on Facebook doesn’t necessarily help self-esteem, except maybe by delusion. Even in the mid 1800’s Henry David Thoreau commented on this situation by observing, “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it that poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Some truths remain timeless.
So what to do? Full Catastrophe Living is an excellent way to learn and practice mindfulness meditation. Better yet, university medical centers may offer a course in Stress Management which teaches mindfulness meditation. Also, spend more time with yourself. Be open to what awareness can show you. As Veronique Vienne so magnificently expresses in The Art of the Moment, “..become enthused by the miraculous spectacle of ordinary life unfolding right in front of you.” (p,12) “The wonder of the world is yours to witness.” (p.31) By the way, she also comments, “If you are in a distracted mood, everything is a blur, a drone, a blah – a so-what.” (p.29)
And finally, hang up once in a while, turn off the BlackBerry and iPod, and live life fully in the moment.